Teaching kids the joy of giving begins at home, and the training can start early. That’s what many families have found, including Mike and Karyn Hobson of Columbia, Maryland. Their three sons, 5 to 11, have worked at a food pantry, sold homemade cookie mixes to raise money for an orphanage in China, made cards for the elderly, and helped their parents pick out bedding and household goods for a refugee family.
The boys also send letters and photos to three boys overseas whom the Hobsons support through donations to Compassion International, a child development ministry that pairs donors with people living in poverty. “We want our children to look at the blessings they have been given and think about how they can share them with others,” Karyn says.
“We talk to them about putting themselves in other people’s shoes,” Mike says. Recently, when the couple asked the boys what they were going to do with their money when they grew up, each one said he would help people in need. Their middle son added that he’s also going to invest in the stock market.
Parents often want to instill the habit of giving in their children, but they don’t know the best way to go about it. Although there’s no how-to manual, there are strategies that work.
Talk the Talk
Role-modeling alone increases charitable values in children. But if parents also talk about what they are doing, it increases giving in kids by 20 percent, says Debra Mesch, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She and colleagues analyzed data on 903 children and their moms.
They found that about nine out of 10 of the kids, ages 8 to 19, gave to charity. Girls and boys were equally likely to give money to a cause, but girls were more likely to volunteer.
Children may not know that their families are donating time and money to charities unless their parents talk to them about the causes they support and the values those causes represent, Mesch says.
Parents need to offer concrete explanations for their donations of time or money. For example, if the family is taking food to a homeless shelter, parents should tell their children that these people might go hungry if they don’t receive food from others, she says.
If the family puts a donation in the plate when it’s passed around during a religious service, then parents should tell their children what that money is used for, she says. It’s important for kids to know that their families set aside funds for philanthropy, she says.
Give the Gift of Generosity
Research shows that when parents teach the habit of giving, their children are more likely to grow up to be charitable, so the lessons in generosity can live on for generations, Mesch says. Grandparents, other relatives, friends, mentors, and teachers also set examples by role-modeling and talking about the charities they’re passionate about.
Early memories about generosity can make lasting impressions, says Eileen Heisman, chief executive officer of the National Philanthropic Trust, a charity that provides expertise to donors, foundations, and financial institutions. She speaks from experience. As a child, she remembers going with her mother to deliver a large laundry basket full of donated food to a needy family for Thanksgiving. When Heisman’s mother gave the basket to the family, and said, “We thought this would help you enjoy the holiday more,” the other mother started to cry.
Heisman was humbled by the stark difference between that family’s poor living conditions and those of her own middle-class family. “I’m 62. That happened when I was 7 or 8, and I can still remember it like it was yesterday,” she says.
Let Children Choose Charities
Kids enjoy being involved in selecting charities to support, Heisman says. “The more you give children a choice, the more they are going to feel committed over the long run.”
One time, Heisman heard a Rockefeller heiress talk about how her parents set up three piggy banks for her and her brothers: one was for saving, one was for spending, and the other was for philanthropy. They chose which charities to support. That lesson in generosity resonated with the heiress and her brothers for years to come, Heisman says.
Some families use this piggy bank idea as a springboard for talking about giving, Mesch says. She agrees that it’s important to let kids select the charities.
Celebrate Budding Philanthropists
Some families encourage their kids to support their own passions. Every year at Christmas, Jane Sharp and her husband, Charles Rardin, both medical doctors in Providence, Rhode Island, give their three boys $50 each to donate to a cause of their choice. The boys, 9 to 13, have donated the money to a food bank, the local Audubon Society, and a group that finds housing for the homeless.
The couple’s goal is to teach their sons how to share their time, talents, and treasures. One Christmas season, their middle son, Miles, now 12, decided he wanted to raise money for Heifer International, a nonprofit organization working to end hunger and poverty with sustainable farming and entrepreneurship.
He built a box that looked like a cow and put some of his allowance in it. He made a formal presentation at their church and collected money. His parents and another donor agreed to match whatever he received. When all was said and done, his efforts generated about $4,400 for Heifer. “It’s impressive what a kid with a big heart can do,” Sharp says.
Parents never know which charitable activities will resonate with their children. Mary Wilson of Raleigh, North Carolina, and her husband, Eric, a program manager in geographic information systems, have done a wide range of activities with their two girls and two boys, 7 to 14. They’ve visited the elderly at a nursing home, fed the homeless, and made blankets for babies at a hospital. They’ve also filled small bags with granola bars and gift cards and kept them in their car to give to homeless people.
The family ate rice and beans, plus a fruit or vegetable, for dinner one night a week for several months so the children would realize “that not everyone has our family’s smorgasbord of choices,” Wilson says. The goal was to teach them that some people in the world and in the United States have very limited food choices, and those who are less fortunate often feel lucky to have enough to eat.
These experiences are making an impact. Their 14-year-old daughter now comes up with ways in which the family can help others.
Many parents hope their children grow up giving of themselves personally, as well as financially. Karyn Hobson wants her boys to realize that some children live in poverty through no fault of their own. She wants them to know that some elderly people are very lonely and need friendship, compassion, and rides to the doctor. She wants their hearts to be pricked when they see a homeless person, so that they want to reach out and do something, whether it’s giving them food or money or performing a simple act of kindness: “I want them to look at the world, and think, ‘How can I make it better? How can I bless someone?’”